Does Violence Beget Violence? A Guide for Parents in the Wake of the Aurora Shooting

The Dark Knight Shooting that occurred in Aurora, Colorado, on July 20, 2012 is a tragedy of immense proportions. People are saddened and in shock; questioning how this sort of thing could happen.

We are focused on the victims, their names, places of work, who they left behind, and what dreams they had that will never be realized.

We are focused on the perpetrator, the gunman from a middle class family who was an intelligent, funny, albeit lonely sort of guy who others referred to as “hard to get to know.”

But what of the survivors? Not the ones in the movie theatres, although they will need a special type of care that will help them metabolize the horrific events they witnessed and should certainly be on our minds and in our hearts…I’m talking about us. We are the survivors of such disaster and it is up to us to make sure that we do everything in our power to prevent future catastrophes from occurring.

And where do we start? We start with our children. Our progeny, the most valuable resource we have to change our world; a world that is too often steeped in greed, aggression, and hatred.

Many people blame it on the technologically enhanced violence of the Twenty-first Century. The brutally fast-paced, realistic, interactive, and explosively violent video games, the 3-D enhanced human destruction that explodes in the movies, and the regular violence displayed on national networks and cable, certainly have played their share in desensitizing our entire society to the loss of human life.

Virtually since the dawn of television, parents, teachers, legislators, and mental health professionals have been concerned about the content of television programs and its impact, particularly on children. Of special concern has been the portrayal of violence, especially given psychologist Albert Bandura’s work on social learning and the tendency of children to imitate what they see. His findings revealed the power of modeling on young children. Children who saw aggression were more likely to model that aggression.

While most mental health professionals would say there is not a direct causation between a child watching and participating in violent media, and growing up to be a serial killer or a mass murderer, most of us agree that children’s early and continued exposure to violence certainly plays a factor in children’s heightened aggression.

Studies have found that when young children are witnessing violence they:

• may become less sensitive to the pain and suffering of others
• may be more fearful of the world around them
• may be more likely to behave in aggressive or harmful ways toward others

A typical child in the U.S. watches close to 30 hours of TV weekly, seeing as many as 8,000 murders by the time he or she finishes elementary school at age 11, and worse, the killers are depicted as getting away with the murders 75% of the time while showing no remorse or accountability. Such TV violence socialization may make children immune to brutality and aggression, while others become fearful of living in such a dangerous society

Researchers found that children who watched many hours of violence on television when they were in elementary school tended to also show a higher level of aggressive behavior when they became teenagers. By observing these youngsters into adulthood, psychologists found that the ones who’d watched a lot of TV violence when they were eight years old were more likely to be arrested and prosecuted for criminal acts as adults.

It has also been shown that playing violent video games can increase a person’s aggressive thoughts, feelings and behavior both in laboratory settings and in actual life. In fact, violent video games may be more harmful than violent television and movies because they are interactive, very engrossing and require the player to identify with the aggressor.

Psychologists also studied how violent music lyrics affect children. In a 2003 study involving college students, they found that songs with violent lyrics increased aggression related thoughts and emotions and this effect was directly related to the violent content of the lyrics.

And lastly, exposure to media violence has a negative effect on children’s moral reasoning. This finding is the most disturbing; for the moral development of our young people is critical for the survival of a healthy society. Studies have shown that the perspective our children are taking when viewing violence is altered significantly when they are viewing violence, particularly fantasy violence.

Fantasy violence that occurs in the context of the Superheroes, science fiction, and horror films, increases the likelihood that children will not see the violence as “bad” but as “thrilling” “adventurous” and even “heroic.” They are less likely to have empathy for the victims and become “desensitized” to killing and the plight of the victims.

Following this most recent tragedy in Colorado, parents will worry how they can protect their children from the violence and aggression they will inevitably be exposed to. By following the below guidelines, parents can significantly reduce the impact of violent entertainment on their children.

• Studies have demonstrated that children under the age of five are the most susceptible to the violence they may view on television, movies, and video games. Under no circumstances should young children be exposed to violence.
• Children who exhibit depression, anxiety, or who have been exposed to trauma should not be allowed to play violent video games or be exposed to violence on television or the movies. These children are struggling with psychological issues that will be heightened as a result of exposure to aggression.
• Children who may be more vulnerable to entertainment violence are those with attachment disorders, Asperger’s, Sensory-Motor Difficulties, or Autism. Modeling aggression may be intensified in these children, combined with their difficulties in building empathy for others.
• Children who have Attention Deficit Disorder or Attention Deficit Disorder with Hyperactivity should not be exposed to violence. These children are susceptible to the influences of aggressive modeling and need to be protected from the over-stimulation of violence on television, the movies, or video games.
• In general, parents should significantly monitor and limit their children’s exposure to violence on television, the Internet, movies, music, and video games. If aggression and violence are not a part of the family culture, the children are less likely to model it, or incorporate it in their adult lives.
• If there is violence displayed in the media, and children are exposed to it, parents should be available to help the child cope with this exposure.

However, despite our best efforts, our children will be exposed to entertainment violence and it is up to parents to know the warning signs for disturbing and possibly dangerous behaviors in their children.

• Children who are loners, have chronic difficulties making friends, are bullied, outcasts, unpopular, and shunned by peers, are much more susceptible to aggressive fantasies and behaviors.
• Children who spend an inordinate amount of time in violent fantasy ruminations and play should not be spending additional time watching aggressive movies or playing violent video games. For these children, it is imperative that parents limit the amount of time that the child is spending engaging in aggressive play. Boys normally engage in aggressive play with army men, superheroes, etc., however, they will play other games as well. Children’s play is well rounded and should not focus singularly on violence and aggression. Some aggressive play is healthy for children as they grapple with understanding the complex and often compelling nature of aggression. It is their way of learning about aggressive behavior. But too much time in aggressive play may be a warning that your child is struggling with this behavior. In these instances, parents should re-direct their child’s play to more cooperative forms of engagement.
• Cruelty to animals, setting fires, bed-wetting, are often related to aggressive children who have difficulties with impulse control. If you have such a child, it is important that you seek professional help and, limit the amount of aggression that he or she is exposed to.
• Any sudden changes in your child such as eating, sleeping, toilet training, aggressive behaviors, withdrawal, irritability, and regression, should be taken as a sign that your child is in distress and may need professional help. Children cope with tragedy in different ways than adults. Their emotions are more fleeting and may range from happiness to sadness in a very short time. However, their cries for help can be seen in their behaviors. It is up to the parents, teachers, clergy and other professionals working with the child to notice any changes that continue over a period of time and parents should seek professional help in these cases.

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